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How will the new Sky News Twitter rules affect Sky and the Twittersphere?

According to the Guardian, Sky News have issued new rules of Twitter engagement for their journalists. From now on, they are forbidden from

retweeting any content produced by non-Sky journalists or by Twitter users, and are instructed to pass tweets outside their brief to the journalist charged with following the particular issue.

Any sensible organisation will have its own social media guidelines, ranging from regulation of its official channels and how staff tweet in a professional capacity through to making provisions for disciplinary procedures if employees bring the brand into disrepute through stupid things said on personal social media channels.

The problem tends to be that most companies are extremely risk averse, and the whole idea of their staff having an almost unregulated platform to address the world is enough to give many reputation managers nightmares. It is difficult to get the right balance between preventing harmful loose cannons and not missing out on the opportunity for tweeting staff to become valuable business assets.

In Sky’s case, their journalists have been responsible ambassadors at the same time as producing exciting content, resulting in large Twitter followings. With Twitter now seen as an essential journalistic tool, there is understandable concern that the new guidelines may limit the benefit they bring to the brand.

In the last couple of years, Sky News has swiftly become established as a major force among UK Twitter users and has had a distinct impact on the breadth and rapidity of the news cycle online.

In the first ever Portland NewsTweet Index, published in November, analysis of over 330,000 tweets from July-September 2011 revealed that the Sky News digital editor, Neal Mann (@fieldproducer), ran the UK’s most impactful media Twitter account – even outperforming @MediaGuardian at a time when the Guardian’s phone hacking campaign was the most talked about media topic on Twitter. (Remarkably, Mann apparently wasn’t consulted about the new social media guidelines despite his senior digital role.)

Neal Mann and his colleagues (notably @skynewsniall and @skymarkwhite) became major hubs for the gathering and distribution of news online because the broadcaster allowed its staff considerable leeway in what and how they chose to tweet. As a result, Sky News journalists delivered some of the most memorable coverage yet to emerge from Twitter – from Mann’s live tweets from the frontline in Libya to Mark White’s coverage of the London riots.

As well as being attractive to followers, their use of the medium chimed with the Sky News brand – fast coverage, gathered on the spot and delivered directly to an audience hungry for updates. It was exciting and disruptive, helping to fuel the revolution which Twitter has brought to the way news is disseminated.

If Sky’s journalists now have to await official signoff on tweets, and cannot retweet interesting snippets from eyewitnesses or pick up on the latest wire updates, it is hard to see how that pace and tone can be maintained. As a result, followers may well question how useful it is to continue subscribing to these accounts.

If they don’t abandon Sky entirely, they may just follow an official branded account instead. This would depersonalise the Sky News brand, abandoning the humanising benefits of giving the audience the chance to know the people who generate the news and see how they do it. That would be a costly sacrifice in the current media environment.

Furthermore, Twitter users don’t just follow a star in the Twitter firmament to find out interesting things – they also do so because they often secretly want to get their own views or news retweeted by that person.  Whether they hope to pick up new followers this way, or just want the warm glow of self-satisfaction that comes from having their content endorsed and picked up by a bigger fish, this is a major driver of behaviour in the Twittersphere.

The new guidelines seem to fail to take into account that Twitter is a participatory, rather than simply broadcast, medium. If a journalist cannot share the news, views or even jokes tweeted at them by their followers, then not only does the content suffer but the audience’s enjoyment of the process is degraded.

Of course, these rules may not be strictly obeyed or policed. But if they are, what will be the impact on the future of tweeting journalists? Sky News is just one media outlet among many – it may be that others will simply step in to fill the gap, snapping up the audience Mann, White and others have helped to build up. That would be an obvious loss to Sky both in terms of reputation and their bottom line, as well as the end of a remarkably informative experience for Sky’s audience.

In a worst case scenario, other broadcasters and media outlets may follow Sky’s lead – if they do, then the British media and the tweeting public will be the poorer for it.

The next Portland NewsTweet Index will be released soon, identifying the top media tweeters for the final quarter of 2011. By the time the Index after that is released, the landscape may well have changed beyond recognition.

It’s just been revealed that the BBC are introducing similar restrictions – instructing reporters to inform their colleagues of stories before they tweet them. Evidently Sky’s decision has caused at least one domino to fall, and it’s telling that the BBC now feels apparently comfortable to delay Twitter updates where previously their primary concern would be that Sky might get the scoop out in a tweet before them.

Mark Wallace is a Senior Account Manager at Portland, and tweets at @wallaceme

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Portland